Monday, April 23, 2012

Who's She? The Cat's Mother?

I've written about this a lot, but since it came up in the comments on my last post (see how I'm spring-boarding from post to post here?) I thought I'd revisit the subject.

Like many Brits, the phrase rang in my ears from the time I could speak. Saying "she" or "he" about a person when they were either standing in front of you or within earshot, induced gasps of horror and the outraged question in this post title. (And no, despite years of research, I still haven't a clue where it came from.)

Thing is, in the USA, not only do they do it all the time, - it's not even considered rude.

When you're out at dinner and there's one person taking control and giving the waiter everyone's orders it quite often goes:

"She'll have the chicken, he'll have the fish and they'll have the pasta." And then the waiter will run through the order before departing, with "OK so, she'll have the chicken, he'll have the fish and they'll have the pasta."

Just not considered anything out of the ordinary.

But when my British friends and relatives come to visit, they can barely contain themselves the first few times they experience it. Usually, they lock eyes on me until I meet their gaze and then give me the "How bloody rude is that? I can't believe she said that" look. Years ago a lovely neighbour of mine remarked on how similar to me my English friend sounded. (Big surprise, eh?)

"Oh, she sounds just like you", neighbour said, turning from my friend to me. I just laughed politely, but my friend seemed frozen to the spot. As soon as we were inside my house the friend found her words. "Did you hear what she said?" etc. etc.

Expats who are only here for a few years, - if you're raising children they're going to pick up what they hear and adopt the language and customs here. There's no point in insisting they use various British-isms if their friends haven't a clue what they mean, and there's really no point in making a big deal out of the cat's mother, when they're not offending anyone in the USA.

Just remind then they're not to say it in front of grandma next time you're back in the UK.

17 comments:

expatlogue said...

Always glad to inspire... :-)

Maggie May said...

Quite rightly so.
Maggie X

Nuts in May

Tim Atkinson said...

Which is, of course, the road to becoming bilingual I suppose. But shouldn't it be 'cat's mother?!

The Prodigal Tourist said...

I confess, this is not something that sets me off, but I did vote for your brilliant blog, so hope that makes up for the useless comment!

Expat mum said...

Gah - Thanks Tim. Time for a new pair of specs!

Prod - More than makes up!

Fiona said...

I admit, even after 14 years in the US, it still strikes me as rude. I've learned there's no point getting upset about it but if my husband does it, I give him the "cat's mother" reply.

notSupermum said...

Yes, I've noticed this. I used to work for an American company in the UK and felt I had to mention how jarring it is for us Brits. Funny how much of a difference it makes to us isn't it?

Expat mum said...

It is funny, and when you're a Brit in the States it looks really uptight and just weird. I was trying to explain it to friends the other day and they just kept saying "But why?". And I kept saying "I don't know, it just is".

nappy valley girl said...

I've actually found myself starting to do it, which is a bit worrying....

elizabethm said...

I think the "but why?" is entirely reasonable. I am a Brit. I spent my childhood hearing the whole "Who's she?" thing but it made no sense to me then and makes no sense hundreds of years later!

Irene said...

In the Netherlands too it's rude to say he or she in front of that person. Though why that should be I don't know. I don't think it's quite the horror it is in England, but it is impolite.

farfromhomemama said...

I noticed this with American friends and at first was a little offended by it. We take for granted that because we speak the same language that we are similar in everything. So not true!

About Last Weekend said...

My bugbear is "you guys" even in the best stores and restaurants - so crass and ignorant

Expat mum said...

But what I really like in the US is "folks". It's a semi-polite, really friendly way of addressing a whole group of people.

Mrs Baum said...

I don't think it's that rude, though possibly that's because my mum always talked about me when I was there. Lots of parents seem to do it.

If my husband makes his usual joke about driving; "Nicky drives whichever seat she sits in, so she may as well sit in the one with the steering wheel and the pedals" (completely true, by the way; I hate being a passenger), then what's wrong with that?

Obviously it's rude to talk about someone as if they're not there, when you should acknowledge them, but other than that, get over it!

Eve said...

I had this exact issue when I first arrived in the States! Which admittedly was only 7 months ago, but trying to explain to my US friends why I took offence (albeit with a pinch of salt - not only is it not *that* big of a deal, but I guessed it might be culture bound in language here) was kind of difficult! I used the "cat's mother" phrase to try to make my point which, as you might imagine, didn't exactly clarify the situation. So in the end, I likened it to speaking about someone when they are in the room as though they can't hear you - almost like you are gossiping? It still isn't quite right, but it seemed to help in understanding.

Incidentally, when talking to my (American) husband about this, he said he finds it very weird when English people refer to each other by name in conversation (when a group of friends are chatting and, let's say Jack, Jill, Bill, and Ben, and Jack says to Jill, "Oh, Bill was just talking about that!", even though Bill is there) - it seems that *not* using "he" or "she" is confusing for Americans, although not considered rude, just weird.

I also really like "folks". :)

Shelley said...

Now that you mention this, I have heard someone use that phrase, though I can't recall it being addressed to me. I'm sure I'm guilty of having used 'he' or 'she' at some point, it being an American custom, but no one has ever corrected me...that I recall. I wouldn't have know what they meant by the cat's mother anyhow. Now that you describe it, it does sound rather rude, talking about someone in their presence. I can't imagine telling a waiter that Susan will have the fish, though!

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